Getting Along with Creatures of the Wild
A former trainer in a natural park explains how you must understand the temperament of animals you work with
HE WHEELED in midair to face the lioness, crossing his arms over his chest and face, hoping to fend off her charge. But she was too quick. Her nose plowed through his defense and she flattened him! Her teeth raked across the back of his head, taking off a patch of hair. Somehow he was on his feet and weaving toward an exit. Again she flattened him, but this time she scampered out of the arena.
“She was just playing,” trainer Larry Titus shrugged. “Usually we let the animal out in a larger area and play with it, getting it in the right mood before doing this stunt,” he explained. “This time she was kept in her cage until the last minute and was not prepared to play her role properly. She shouldn’t be blamed. It was our fault.”
Here in this natural park where animals ran free in a habitat that resembled Africa, visitors gathered around a 50-foota arena for special shows. “Imagine you are watching a native running through the jungle,” the announcer would call out. A trainer would burst out of the tunnel with a lion or a tiger after him!
“They would come at 30 milesb an hour and knock us flat, and play with us like a hockey puck. It was rough on us. That’s why we would do it only two or three times a day, and we would take turns.”
The life of an animal trainer can be harried, Larry Titus confessed. “I had both shoulders dislocated within two days. Once was with a mountain lion—the one you see in the car commercials on TV. I was training him with what we call the buzzer call. When I gave the command to come for the meat he came for me instead. I swung the chain in my hand so hard I dislocated one shoulder.”
Next day he dislocated the other one, trying to give an elephant an enema. Chris, his wife, who is an animal handler, snickered. “Tell how you give an elephant an enema.”
“With a water hose. This elephant didn’t like it and kicked me 20 feet across the barn.”
The worst scare of his life came when he was a beginner, a handler. It was in the California mountains at a big game compound where wild animals were trained and used for motion pictures. He gives this account:
“In the elephant barn the stalls were pitch-black until you opened a window. I walked into Squeakie’s stall. Squeakie was a hedgehog. I kept talking to Squeakie to let him know I wasn’t going to hurt him. What I heard was not Squeakie but a deep rumble. Then I saw green eyes. I opened the window and there, draped all the way across the far wall, was a Siberian tiger 12 feet long. Your impulse is to yell your head off. But I knew enough just to keep talking, as though it was Squeakie, as I sidled back to the door and out.
“It was in these mountains of California that my twin brother Gary and I got the training that led to our becoming animal trainers. There were 2,500 to 3,000 animals in the compound. The cages were flimsy, and every day some animal would break out. The management noted that my brother and I had a special knack for capturing the runaways.
“One time we were out chasing a kangaroo. I heard it coming down a ravine, ducked out of sight, and as it went by I jumped on its back. He really took off down the canyon. I lost my shirt and got bruised and scratched from head to foot, but he tired after 20 minutes. I’ve ridden ostriches, giraffes, rhinoceroses, wildebeests, antelopes—anything ridable. After five years of this, Gary and I began to get the feel of training wild creatures.”
Coping with the Killer Instinct
Most of us look at a lion or a wolf or even a giant eagle and feel awe and fright. Professional trainers see the animals in a different way.
“I see their natural wildness,” Larry explains, “the danger in their nature, but not deliberate and vicious like humans. And though they are not domesticated in spirit, they are playful and friendly in their way. They are capable of affection and are friendly as long as you understand that they can only accept it in their way. But in learning how to get along with them, you never want to overlook the killer instinct. It’s the first thing we looked for as we received newcomers to Tiger Island.
“Tiger Island was just off the mainland (California) where the big natural park was—the place where the lioness took a patch of my hair. People circled the island in boats to watch the lions and the tigers running free. I was one of the head trainers who kept the 15 or 20 big cats going through their games. Most of the animals had grown up on the mainland in the show areas. The handlers who cared for them while they were young were mostly women, and sometimes the animals became spoiled—for sometimes women do spoil little creatures. When the animals get big they are sent out to us on Tiger Island, and if they have been spoiled we’re confronted with a real and dangerous problem.
“One day I got a male lion about 11 months old and weighing 200 pounds.c The first thing to do when an animal comes to Tiger Island is to break him of any sense of possessiveness. If he gets ahold of something and has it for any period of time he feels he owns it. Then if you try to take it from him your life could be endangered. I had a way of testing the possessive spirit. I’d give the animal something to play with, then tell him to leave it before he became possessive—possessiveness means the right to tear it apart, and sometime the plaything could be you.
“This new young lion’s name was Dandelion. I gave him a gunnysack. When he started to play with it I told him to leave it. I told him three or four times. He growled, reared up on his hind feet, snapping and biting and boxing with me, right, left, right, left. I’d duck or block his blows, and hit him maybe on the nose. He backed me off several yards, to a tree where I had a club. About that time he dropped to the ground and loped back to his gunnysack.
“I could not let him get away with this. I got the club and kept it behind me as I went back. Again I said, ‘Leave it.’ He snarled. I said ‘Leave it’ again. He lunged. I came down hard on his nose. It was for his good and mine. If he didn’t learn to obey he would be shipped off to a zoo to sit in a cage for the rest of his life. For this young lion that could mean 20 years. An hour later it was time for another lesson. I gave him the gunnysack, but he would have nothing to do with it. I waited until the next day.
“The next day he got possessive again, but after three ‘Leave its’ he left it. Good, but not good enough. He had to learn to leave it the first time. We kept on until he got it down to the first ‘Leave it.’ From then on I could be anywhere on the island, no matter how far, and if he got possessive over anything I’d call out ‘Leave it.’ Dandelion’s ears would fold back and he’d take off. So it was good. It was protection, survival.”
Obedience to the command “Leave it” could mean saving a trainer’s life. Larry’s brother Gary was to work with an African bull elephant at Knott’s Berry Farm in southern California. Its name was Punky, and after its trainer had shown Gary the cues and commands Punky knew, Gary took the bull hook (a two-foot oak club with a hook on the end) and started to put Punky through his paces.
But animals are like children—they tend to test you. Punky wrapped his trunk around Gary’s legs, hoisted him overhead and went running through the compound. The bull hook fell to the ground and Gary thought the end was near. Suddenly the elephant stopped, threw Gary to the ground and raised his foot to stomp him. Punky’s original trainer rushed up, hooked the leg with his bull hook and yelled, “Leave it!” Punky walked off as if nothing had happened.
Getting to Know Their Temperament
The trainer must know the temperament of the animals he works with. One day Larry was feeding Harpie, a South American monkey eagle, the one that made the movie “Harpie.” She weighed 16 pounds, stood 26 inchesd tall and had talons that could wrap around your wrist and overlap some three inches. Her grip could register 700 pounds pressure. This day Larry was feeding her chicken necks as she perched on his arm. He relates the incident:
“I moved my arm a bit and she clamped down. I had done something wrong. She wasn’t swallowing her food as usual, and if she became possessive of the chicken neck she might crush my wrist. Every time I would move even the slightest she would clamp down harder. This went on for 20 minutes. My arm was trembling. My hand was turning blue. Suddenly she swallowed the chicken neck and the pressure was off. For Harpie nothing had happened, but my arm was useless for days.
“It takes years to learn the little dos and don’ts of animal training. Different animals have different temperaments. Some you can train by reprimand. The lion and the tiger react somewhat like a dog. You may even reprimand them with a hit. But you never hit a wolf or a bird of prey. They don’t respond to forceful teaching. And don’t try to scare them.
“I’ve seen experienced trainers get fanged for trying to hit a wolf. A trainer might swing a club on a wolf, thinking, ‘I did it to a lion yesterday and it worked.’ But try it on a wolf and he’ll get teeth into you. The wolf isn’t tuned to that kind of treatment. Nor can you reprimand a bird of prey by a flick on the beak. The only rapport you can have with a bird of prey is peacefulness. No sudden moves, no sharp words. It must feel secure with you. That’s the only method that will work, that and the fact that you’re feeding it.
“And don’t expect every wild creature to respond to human training. Most of my birds of prey I trapped myself out in the wilds. I’d catch 10 or 12 hawks, bring them home and find out which ones would respond to training without damaging them. Then I’d let the rest of them go.”
Larry and Chris worked mostly with lions and tigers.
“Lions are grumpy,” he explained. “They don’t want to be bothered, especially in the heat of the day. With a tiger you can wrestle all day long. But you start pranking with a lion at high noon and you’ve got a fight on your hands.”
When they both worked at the natural park, Naji, a Bengal tiger, was their favorite.
“Naji was calm, cool and collected. He just liked to stroll around. He was really gentle. He would accept just about any routine because he knew he would not be forced. He roamed the island at will.”
“Tell how Naji would protect you,” Chris suggested.
“There was another tiger named Bagdad,” Larry said. “Bagdad was different—aggressive, playful, kind of sneaky. She would tiptoe around the island and hide behind things. When you’d walk by she would rush in from behind and attack. People would almost have a heart attack watching, but she was just like a house cat, overgrown by a few hundred pounds. All she would do was flatten you like a pancake, click her heels in the air and keep running. Now, if Naji was around he would race out and intercept Bagdad and they would have a brawl. Bagdad would run off and Naji would come up and stick by me.
“There was a Siberian tigress called Shantee that was cross-eyed. She would run at me, 10 feet off target all the way, then right at the end swerve in a big loop and be right on top of me. She was playful. Whatever I was in the mood for, Shantee would go for it.
“Another Siberian, a big male 10 feet long, four feet high and weighing over 600 pounds, had a favorite sport. He liked to be ridden. It happened by accident. In the show arena one day he sat down. I walked up and was petting him and threw my leg around him. He bolted straight up and there I was on his back. The audience burst into applause—they thought it was the act. He circled the arena a time or two, then shot down the tunnel like a rocket. After that I’d ride him in the park, anywhere, zooming past the people in a streak. Not many people get to ride a Siberian tiger.”
But this one got too big, maybe 800 pounds and 15 feet long. Siberians are among the largest land predators and, with exceptions, are pretty temperamental, harder to get acquainted with. The Tituses hated to see him go, but management finally shipped him off to China.
“Our shows were not in zoos or circuses,” Larry explained, “but in the natural setting of Tiger Island. We usually raised the animals from cubs. We let them romp and play, then built a show around their natural behavior. Whatever trait we discovered in an individual animal we reinforced it. That way the animal had about 90 percent of the say-so. If he liked to roll over and play with sticks, he’d learn that every time he rolled over we fed him. If he liked to hold a certain position he would be rewarded for that. The system is called affection training.
“Affection training brings out the best in wild animal nature. The average circus act brings out the worst. You see lions and tigers in circus arenas snarling at the whips and chairs and guns. They are goaded into this show of ferocity. The human performers want to make the animals appear dangerous and deadly to impress the audience.
“Backstage in circuses I’ve seen trainers scream and jab at animals to psych them up. I’ve seen them underfed and starved so that they would put on a good show. If they did, maybe they would be fed.”
Now when the Tituses work with animals it is as independent speciality trainers. The circumstances are more delightful.
“For instance,” Larry said, “I managed the animals in a movie called ‘Silence.’ It called for a bear, a cub, a porcupine and two coyotes. The script called for natural behavior. The animals were to go from point A to B, or from C to D. I would lay out a trail of food for the different ones, then walk them on a leash through the trail a couple of times. By not feeding them the night before, they were eager to run the food routes just as the script directed. In one case, the porcupine was to chase actor Will Geer out of the cabin and down the hill. All Geer had to do was get in front of the porcupine on the food trail and the chase was on.”
Chris sums up the present feelings and hopes of both her and her husband:
“You view the creatures of the wild in their natural habitat and it makes you sad to see them taken away and imprisoned like human felons in the cages of zoos and circuses. Sharing what we did with the animals helped us a great deal in accepting the truth of God’s Word concerning an earthly paradise under Christ’s kingdom.
“We were excited to learn of the promised condition of the animals, as mentioned in Isaiah 11:6-9, where it foretells the peacefulness of all kinds of animals mixed together, and a little child leading them. It made us want to learn more of what Jehovah had in store for mankind. Surely Jehovah understood our love for his wonderful animal creations, to have made such a fantastic promise as that.
“Though it’s been some time since we’ve worked with the animals mentioned, we often go back and visit them. Some, like Naji, the Bengal tiger, remember us.
“We hope and pray that Jehovah might have a place for us in his new system having to do with the animals, since animals both wild and domestic may need mankind’s attention. We look forward so much to the new system, and we know that whatever we do in God’s righteous new order will satisfy our heart’s desire.
“We came to learn of the truths about the new order with the help of Larry’s identical twin brother Gary, who a year ago fell asleep in death. He too looked forward to being able to ride on rhinos and fondle lions again, as he and Larry had done together before.
“So you see we have so much to look forward to. What a loving Creator to promise such happiness to all obedient mankind.”
a A foot = 30.48 centimeters.
b A mile = 1.609 kilometers.
c A pound = 0.453 kilograms.
d An inch = 2.54 centimeters.
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‘You never hit a wolf—he isn’t tuned to that kind of treatment’
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‘Harpie—her grip can register up to 700 pounds pressure’
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